Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The past and the present as the past's future

The way I always remember the past is to clump periods of time together and attach an overriding feeling or gist. Consequently my personal history is chunked and categorised with the feeling each chunk evokes. Is that what everyone does?

The chunks' labels can be arbitrary and chunks can overlap. For example I can have a feeling for the time I lived in a particular house but also a feeling for a friendship that also spanned two different homes etc. I suspect this isn't unique to me but feel I might need to look for a little reassurance so I can deny anti-mainstreaming....again.

Other chunks can be decades. I suspect I am not alone here. What does the seventies evoke for you (feelings or thoughts?) or the eighties? Those two were so distinct. (The nineties and the noughties don't feel quite so discrete for me but can muster up a few 'gists').

A book I am reading at the moment also pointed out something else about the past to me: I(/we?) tend to arrogantly have a patronising attitude towards decades gone by - even those we were part of. My assumption is that while individuals from the past could be extremely bright the overall understanding of the world was relatively backward. The technology was so much more simple and people could not possibly have known what they were doing as well as they do now. We have progressed so much - surely the brightest of our time must have a better foundation of knowledge to draw on that the brightest of decades ago.

However, this paragraph in Engleby by Sebastian Faulks put me right. The most basic and impactful problems of humankind appear immune from our 'progress'.

It's written by 'Engleby' in 1973....

Don't patronise me if you read this thirty years on, will you? Don't think of me as old-fashioned, wearing silly clothes or some nonsense like that. Don't talk crap about 'the seventies', will you, as we do now about 'the forties'? I breathe air like you. I feel food in my bowel and the lingering taste of tea in my mouth. I'm alive as you are. I'm as modern as you are, in my way - I couldn't be more modern. My reality is as complex as yours; the atoms making me and this world in their random movements are as terrible and strange and beautiful as those that make your world. Yours are in fact my atoms, reused. And you too, on your front edge of breaking time, Mr 2003, will be the object of condescending curiosity to the future - to Ms 2033. So don't patronise me. (Unless of course you have completely overturned and improved my world, bringing peace and plenty and a cure for cancer and schizophrenia, and a unified scientific explanation of the universe comprehensible to all and a satisfactory answer to the philosophical and religious questions of our time. In which case you would be permitted to patronise primitive little 1973. Well have you done those things? Got a cure for the common cold yet? Have you? Thought not. How's your 2003 world then? A few wars? Some genocide? Some terrorism? Drugs? Abuse of children? High crime rate? Materialistic obsession? More cars? Blah-blah pop music? Vulgar newspapers? Porn? Still wearing jeans? Thought so. Yes you've had an extra thirty years to sort it out).

Well that told us! And told us in an unquestionable and therefore powerful way!


  1. Yes. People we are pleased to call cave men were like us too: as intelligent, loving. They just lacked our culture.

  2. I agree in the context of the last forty years - many things have not changed - certainly not fundamental human intelligence. But I suppose we could say that values have altered largely for the good (feminism ad human rights would be imperfect examples) - and we have made some progress in areas like the genome project, IVF, our understanding of space.

    It also isn't true that we never make progress; the scientific revolution of the 18th and 19th century made huge differences to peoples lives, much more than the last forty years - think of life without anaesthetics, electricity, moden transport, navigation, chemistry, medical science. Life in the twenty first century is vastly different to the 16th or 17th century.

    Whether we are better people, however, is a different matter - as I look at what's on TV most weekends I suspect not

  3. Codgi - I am half caveman and quite loving but not at all cultured.

    Mark - yes we make scientific progress and our values (in the UK certainly) appear to be moving in the right direction with respect to human rights and equality. But what I liked about the paragraph is it shows us how we never find consensus of how to beneficially approach (or an absolute solution to) what seem like universally disliked problems. And we probably never will if we haven't yet.

  4. On a slightly different but related note, somebody explained to me recently the theory (proven I think???) of 'accumulated knowledge' making man's brain cleverer now than in the past - or something like that. I didn't really get it. And I was drunk. (He was clever.)

  5. Sebastian did a good job there.
    100% accurate prophecy is very difficult, even to say something that should be a 'given' like 'time will still exist tomorrow'. Some physicists are still on the fence about that one.

  6. That was fantastic. I've had conversations embodying much of what Sebastian said, but he did a much better job than I did.

    I have a similar method around recalling the past. Linear time and I have a difficult relationship. While there are years missing, still, I tend to remember the past by season, my what I was wearing, by what I believed my place in the world was...


  7. I really liked that. Reminds me of something I read as a kid that put things into context for me, when an anthropologist pointed out that you could take a Cro-magnon human from 30,000 years ago and teach them to fly a fighter jet.

    Although I'm not sure who'd operate the time machine . . .

  8. That is brilliant. With a 14-year old, I find not only the attitude of present sophistication called out by Engleby, but oddly a feeling of defense of past lesser-sophistication in our post-modern world in that most of the trends and jokes are completely unoriginal and the references sometimes don't even make it to the source as they are references of references.

    The other day I said her appreciation of the smell in my car wasn't a good thing because it was coolant burning off somewhere. She responded "I love the smell of coolant in the morning." She's never even heard of Apocalypse Now.

    But I guess that also feeds the inherent need to be wiser now than I was then, than she is now.

    There's a link to Toffler's Future Shock somewhere but I've already taken up enough of your comments. Nice place you've got here :)

  9. Claire – as you know, I hang on every last one of your insightful and articulate nuggets and that one was one of your best. Thank you. You should drink and speak to clever people more often if that is an example of what can result.

    Eric – Engleby turned out to be a murderer. I didn’t predict that. There were lots of insightful comments about time, mental health etc that Engleby makes in the book from his unique (slightly autistic) view of the world. One that I am still mulling over is that human consciousness was a mutation of such benefit to our species that it was, of course, naturally selected. But with that consciousness came lots of malfunctions....but the consciousness’ increasing of survival odds outweighed the bad bits so they stayed in the pot. There’s certainly collective malfunctioning going on.....

    Pearl – this sparked off a conversation with my long suffering chap about needing the rigour of all ideas being challenged but at the same time needing and overall ‘progress’ in a ‘universally understood to be beneficial’ way. Gee it’s fun round our house.

    Jules – Oooo I like that. That makes a point well and more succinctly than the point it’s making could be made. I have chosen time travel as my super power so I learn to fly a fighter jet and go back in time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Ricky - use the space away Shicky Rambles. I understand that defence thing. It’s like when music covers from ‘my pop era’ come into the charts and I have to tell my daughter the version she loves IS just a cover. We were there enjoying the tune first.


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